Movie: Films about education tend to either go for cheap laughs or documentary presentations like Etre et Avoir did several years back. While you can find more genres covered if you really try, I think directors shy away from the background more often than not due to the way most people in the world (especially first world countries) tend to be in school for a significant portion of their lives; typically believing the basics to be so mundane to us that they become dismissive or that the soap box dramas of teachers saving the world are phoney and ouside the experience most people have. Well, a German director by the name of Maren Ade, armed by the experiences of her teacher parents, set out to make a comedy but ended up with a far darker psychological study instead with her release of Der Wald vor lauter Baumen or in English The Forest For the Trees, having shot 50 hours of material and seeing a natural progression with which to adapt her screenplay.
The movie was shot on video, freeing up Ade to experiment with her material a bit whereas she'd have been limited with the more expensive film format (as independent productions often are), during spring break in a couple of small cities in Germany with about a month of days to work with. Starring Eva Loebau as a geeky young teacher named Melanie Proschle, the movie details her descent into madness at the hands of a system typically viewed from the perspective of how poorly it treats the student, making this film more interesting to check out.
Melanie moves to a new area part way through the year to take over the teaching post at a small school that has many grades stuck together. Barely out of college herself, the mousy woman is full of that "I'll change the world" attitude that so many youth start out their careers with, thinking her newly learned training will set the world on fire and that she'll earn the praise of those stuffy older teachers she probably had herself in the past. The landscape is littered with the bodies of those young idealists that went into teaching to make a difference, failing to understand that the reason so many of their more successful peers revert to the tried and true methods is because they work for most students.
Melanie thinks that she can work her magic without discipline and the students soon take advantage of her apparent weakness. They become openly rebellious, even throwing chocolate milk containers at her when her back is turned. They shout her down as to proposed field trips and she is too stubborn to tell them no or to change her ways. She also refuses to seek the assistance of her peers most of whom are substantially older than she is with the exception of one man (Thorsten Rehm played by Jan Neumann) who she belittles as a know it all after he tries to assist her in her transition into the school. By neglecting to develop a network of peers that she can rely on, she becomes increasingly marginalized by them as the type that breezes in and out of the profession since they'd seen it all before (many times).
Her social life isn't much better since she fails in her attempts to make friends with the neighbors, most of whom are simply not interested in her outside of her present of some homemade booze she brings them as housewarming gifts. One neighbor is older than Yoda, the other is a suspicious foreigner, and the viewer is left to figure out that they were representative of the others in the apartment complex she moved into. She eventually makes a tenuous connection with a woman from a next door complex having met her at a clothing store she runs. This leads to a new word of despair since the lady (Tina Schaffner played by Daniela Holtz) seems to be disinterested except when she needs something, a fact that a desperate Melanie fails to realize. Through a series of misunderstandings, she eventually finds that Tina is a user with bipolar tendencies but by then it's too late. Lacking any outside life and having a troubled professional career that is all but on the rocks, Melanie heads towards a breakdown in this character study of a movie.
The acting was handled very nicely as were the situations. I got the impression that the director really did have a lot of insight into how teaching works in the real world (not the occasional Hollywood version of it) and if she credits her parents for this base of knowledge, more credit to her for doing so. As a contrast to the usual comedy or moral soap box teaching effort (To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, and Desperate Minds are the first I can come up with), the movie works nicely as a remedy for those in the teaching profession. I'd strongly recommend it be required viewing of all who sought to teach in public schools though as a movie for the general population, I think it was more worthy of being Recommended. The folks at Film Movement chose well yet again here since this movie would have easily fallen under the radar most have set up, even though it did fairly well at film festivals across the world, winning numerous prizes. That the movie provided no pat answers, no glossed over idealism disguised in platitudes, and just the right amount of cynicism of the teaching profession made it refreshing to this reviewer, something I think many of you will find if you take the time to check this one out.
Picture: The Forest For the Trees was presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 color as originally shot by director Maren Ade. It was shot on video and looked like a TV movie of the week afternoon special but the darker nature of the movie soon changed that perception. The lighting and technical aspects of the movie were handled well enough, conveying the sense of ever so slightly creeping down the path laid out for the lead character but not so obviously that the ending was seen ahead of time. There were no noticed compression artifacts and the visual appeal of the movie was added to by the manner in which each setting, be it her apt, the school room, or the other limited locations, seemed to fit real life limitations.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital German with English subtitles offered up in bright yellow. There wasn't as much attention paid on the audio aspects of the movie as the visual but it got the job done. There was no separation between the channels except on rare occasions (I could count them on one hand) and the dynamic range was nothing impressive either. The use of music was subtle as the vocals were the primary draw here. I got a sense of change as the movie progressed from the audio but it was somewhat less obvious than the visual changes that I think multiple viewing might allow more insights with.
Extras: The primary extra on any Film Movement release is the short film that comes on the DVD and this was no exception to the rule. This time, the short was very short, coming from the UK by director Paul Cotter in the form of Estes Avenue, a short described as "Five people, on the very same street, at the very same time, saying the very same word. Each for a different reason." Fans of plays on language will "get it" faster than most would but it wasn't one of the best short films I've watched in the series. His own website says this about him and the short: "Born in Brighton, England, Paul Cotter is an award winning filmmaker and commercials director. His most recent short film, ESTES AVENUE, was accepted into competition at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It is his third film, following his HBO acquired debut, JEFF FARNSWORTH, and 2003's LAST HAND STANDING. It was five days before Richard Dresser's play "Wonderful World" would open at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago, and director Paul Cotter had the day off. It was Sunday, August 15th and Cotter spent the day shooting the short that would land him in the Sundance Film Festival. Cotter borrowed a friend's DV camera and shot five scenes that day, exploring five different uses of the word "god" by five different characters on Estes Avenue, where he was living. "Two hours for each of the five vignettes would mean a ten hour shooting day," Cotter said. "That gave me a couple of hours to grab some B-Roll, and I knew I would have the film". With editorial, the film was completed in two weeks at total cost of $122.00. "The most expensive thing was the taxi. I had to hire a cab. Otherwise with the total tape stock at $14.00 and two burritos for my crew at $8, it was a very inexpensive film to shoot". The only other extras were some limited text biographies of the cast and director for the main movie on the DVD.
Final Thoughts: The Forest For the Trees wasn't a cheerful, uplifting movie about a teacher who overcomes all odds to save a group of kids from their upbringing or societal circumstances beyond their control. It also didn't need to use an extensive budget to tell the story, a very personal one from the looks of it, by director Maren Ade. If you're looking for something substantially deeper than expected of this type of movie, by all means check it out and see why it was the darling of the film circuit all over the world. It had some flaws but they were outweighed by the manner in which the material was adeptly handled by cast and crew, leading me to appreciate it all the more.